Sir Alex Ferguson's last major signing as Manchester United manager fired Crystal Palace to within one match of the Premier League, as Wilfried Zaha scored two superb second-half goals to set up a play-off showdown with Watford.
Zaha, who was loaned back to Palace after completing a £15m transfer to United in January, will thus have the opportunity to ensure his current team-mates get to visit him at Old Trafford next season. Their Wembley appointment was fully earned, as they produced a performance of solidity, speed and sharpness to beat their highly-fancied hosts. Brighton's 30-year wait for a return to the top flight goes on.
Zaha's night had begun badly, a lapse of concentration by him in the 13th minute gifting Brighton their first clear sight of goal. Will Buckley dispossessed the dozing winger at the edge of the Palace area and unleashed a shot that Julián Speroni turned behind for a corner.
If it seemed improbable at that point that Zaha would finish the evening as a hero, the fact that he did was apt given that Palace's win was against the odds in many respects. This, after all, was a team who had struggled on the road since Ian Holloway arrived as manager in November, and they were coming to the home of the tightest defence in the division without their top scorer, Glenn Murray, who suffered knee ligament damage in Friday's goalless first leg. In the only change to the line-ups from that match, Murray was replaced by Aaron Wilbraham, whose solitary goal since joining the club last summer had come in a 4-1 Carling Cup defeat by Preston.
Wilbraham had an early chance to make a mark but, after beating Matthew Upson to a cross, flicked the ball wide from seven yards. Brighton soon got their rapid-fire passing going but relentless pressing from Palace prevented them getting into decent range until Zaha's error. That was only a temporary aberration by the south London side, who restricted Brighton to long-range efforts for the rest of the first half, Dean Hammond producing the best of them, a rasping 20-yard drive into the side-netting.
It was looking like the tie would be decided by a single goal and Jonathan Williams was given a glorious opportunity to score it just after half-time but, after a barnstorming run and shrewd pass by Zaha, the Wales international shot past Tomasz Kuszczak but missed the target by a yard.
Both managers made substitutions in a bid to force a breakthrough and Brighton's Ashley Barnes nearly obliged with his first touch. After arriving in the 64th minute he raced on to a flick-on and jabbed the ball towards goal from 10 yards but Speroni deflected the shot out off the crossbar. Barnes beat the goalkeeper with a powerful header from the ensuing corner only for Dean Moxey to boot off the line.
Five minutes later a Palace substitute made a more decisive impact. Yannick Bolasie, on in place of Williams, delivered a sumptuous cross from the left and Zaha raced in front of Wayne Bridge to send a plunging header into the net.
Palace finished stronger and Zaha secured victory with a wonderful second goal in the 88th minute. After receiving a pass from Kagisho Dikgacoi, the 20-year-old spun past his marker and crashed a ferocious shot into the roof of the net. "He was the player Manchester United saw could become a world star," admitted Gus Poyet. "Until today, against us, he was not a £15m player. Sometimes the good players stand up on big occasions, so here we go. Zaha did.".
Ian Holloway shared that view. "Wilf will be a match-winner at the top, top, top level," said the Palace manager, who was delighted at his team regaining form at just the right time. "How wrong was everyone to write us off? We've come to the hardest place ever and shown all sorts of strength of character."
While Holloway plans for the play-off final, Poyet, who is admired by several Premier League clubs, will on Tuesday hold a meeting with Brighton's chairman, Tony Bloom, to see whether he will be given enough transfer funds to convince him to stay on the south coast. "I always said that during the time we keep improving, I'll be at the football club," said the Uruguayan. "But as soon as we hit the roof? I need to know the answer to that in the morning, whether we've hit the roof or not.
"Right now, I don't know … I'm not going to stay forever. It doesn't matter how many years of contract you've signed."
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